Covenant Rules and Regulations - Sermon for Lent 3B (Exodus 20)
The God who created the universe is a covenant-making God who called Abraham and his family to leave their homeland for an unknown future. God promised to bless the nations through Abraham’s descendants. We’re included in this covenant through our faith in Jesus.
This covenant-making God would liberate Abraham’s descendants from slavery in Egypt. When God met up with the people at Mount Sinai, God covenanted with them in preparation for entering the land of promise. This covenant included a few rules and regulations to help the people flourish in the land of promise as a free people.
I invite you to envision for a moment the scene at the base of the mountain. If you’re like me, Moses will look a lot like Charlton Heston with a gray beard. As the story goes in the Book of Exodus, Moses went up the mountain to meet with God. God told Moses that “if you obey my voice and keep my covenant, you shall be my treasured possession out of all peoples. Indeed, the whole earth is mine, but you shall be for me a priestly kingdom and a holy nation” (Ex. 19:5-6). The instructions God gave to Moses defined the nature of the covenant that would bind the people in a relationship with God and with another. If they embraced these instructions, then they would know what it means to be a priestly kingdom and a holy nation.
This new covenant built on the earlier covenants, but it helped Israel focus on its vocation to live together as a priestly kingdom and holy nation. Here is how Rabbi Reuven Hammer puts it: In making this covenant, God bound “this nation to the service of God and the observance of God’s commandments. The nation therefore became a holy nation and all the people became priests, that is, dedicated to the service of the Lord.” [A Year with the Sages, p. 351).
According to 1 Peter, this promise has been extended to us through Christ our Lord: “But you are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, in order that you may proclaim the mighty acts of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Pet. 2:9).
When God made the covenant with Israel at Sinai, God first declared: “I am the Lord your God, who brought you out of the land of Egypt, out of the house of slavery.” In other words, I’m the one who liberated you from Pharaoh’s oppressive grasp. Therefore, “You shall have no other gods before me.”
This first command and the ones that follow serve as a sign of regime change. Walter Brueggemann writes that God asks for their loyalty as an “alternative to the anxiety-producing enterprise of Pharaoh. The command is to worship the one who liberates from Pharaoh, and to honor, the inscrutable holiness of the God who will not be squeezed into any production system” [Journey to the Common Good, p. 24]. These covenant stipulations remind us that our neighbors are not the means to an end, but the end itself. To give a more succinct description of the covenant, God simply asks us to love God and our neighbor. These two commands, one from Deuteronomy and the other from Leviticus define the covenant relationship.
While it’s easy to envision these commandments in legal terms as a set of dos and don’ts, if we do this we miss the point of the covenant. Remember these instructions were given to Israel by the liberating God. So, perhaps it would better if we thought of these words in terms of a constitution that organizes the community so that it can flourish. Besides, these rules aren’t all that burdensome. Yes, most of them start with the words “do not,” but they’re pretty straightforward. Don’t make idols or misuse God’s name. Don’t steal, commit adultery, or lie about your neighbor. As for the Sabbath, it reminds us to take a break from our labor.
So, as we gather with Israel at the base of Mount Sinai, we hear these words in the context of debates about the meaning of the word freedom. Some of our neighbors take a radically “libertarian” view of freedom and claim that they have the right to do as they please. If they don’t want to wear a mask in public, then no one is going to make them wear it! As I read these words from Exodus 20, I hear a very definition of freedom because it’s defined by the covenant God makes with the people of Israel.
Yes, God gave the people a set of rules and regulations, but as Rabbi Barry Schwartz reminds us, according to the Torah, “the demanding and commanding God is first and foremost the liberating God” [Path of the Prophets, p. 33]. Only then does God give us that set of rules and regulations. That’s because, as Rabbi Schwartz writes, for Israel “mission is predicated on covenant, and covenant implies obligation.” Therefore, while “radical freedom can lead to anarchy. Responsible freedom leads to blessing” [Path of the Prophets, p. 36]. These commandments, therefore, help us experience the responsible freedom that leads to the blessings that Abraham’s descendants are to bring to the nations (Gen. 12).
So, how might we experience the responsible freedom that leads to flourishing as God’s people? I would suggest that as Christians we can do this by following the way of Jesus, who didn’t reject the Torah but embodied it in his life, death, and resurrection. In doing this Jesus showed us how we can love God and love our neighbors. This is what it means to experience the freedom that is rooted in the covenant the liberating God makes with God’s people so that we’ll not only flourish but be a blessing to the nations.
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
March 7, 2021
Picture Attribution: Rembrandt Harmenszoon van Rijn, 1606-1669. Moses with the Ten Commandments, from Art in the Christian Tradition, a project of the Vanderbilt Divinity Library, Nashville, TN. http://diglib.library.vanderbilt.edu/act-imagelink.pl?RC=55126 [retrieved March 6, 2021]. Original source: http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Rembrandt_-_Moses_with_the_Ten_Commandments_-_Google_Art_Project.jpg.